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Time For A New Retriever: Puppy, Started Or Finished Dog?

If you’re a waterfowl hunter, sooner or later you’ll want a retriever to pick up birds. If you’re a serious waterfowl hunter, you’ll need that retriever sooner rather than later.

But what does a waterfowler, serious or otherwise, need in a retriever? And what’s the best way of going about getting a dog that fills the role?

At a minimum, a waterfowl-retrieving dog should have basic obedience down (sit, stay, heel and here); the ability to mark, remember and pick up two or three fallen birds; the discipline to deliver those birds reliably to hand; and the training to run, at the very least, rudimentary blinds (including taking a line, stopping on a whistle and taking hand signals that move the dog left, right and away, or back, from the hunter). With even a basic understanding of these concepts, a waterfowler can confidently hunt just about any water or field setup.

The best way to go about getting a dog to that stage of training is a bit more muddled, however. The answer depends upon your lifestyle, the amount of time you can devote to training, access and proximity to training grounds and even your disposable income.

Taking those factors into consideration, a waterfowler seeking a retriever has three options: doing it from the ground up with a puppy or taking a bit of a shortcut and buying a started or finished dog.

The Puppy Approach

Welcoming a two-month-old puppy into your home can be a monumental occasion for you and the family. It marks the beginning of an era that will last the next 10 to 15 years. For the waterfowl hunter, that commitment to a young pup presents several options but also a great obligation.

Pros: With a puppy, you have a wider selection of colors to choose from and a better chance of getting your preference of a male or female from a litter. “With started dogs, a breeder doesn’t always have a lot of dogs left over from litters to choose from, and you might wonder why if they do,” said Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss.

Stewart also points to the flexibility of training the puppy for your exact lifestyle — be it living in the house, riding on the back of an ATV or performing as first mate on your sailboat. “Sometimes you can get better material by getting a puppy instead of a dog that’s washed out of someone’s program,” he said, noting that you can train for those little things that are important in your life, rather than possibly trying to fight the training a started or finished dog has received.

Finally, the financial investment in a puppy makes it a very attractive option when compared to the thousands of dollars you could spend on a started or finished dog.

Karl Gunzer of High Spirit Retrievers and a Purina employee warns that a pup from field lines still isn’t a cheap investment. “For a decently bred puppy, you almost can’t find anything for less than $750,” he said.

Cons: By far the greatest challenge of going the puppy route is time. Training a puppy to a level of competence requires time — time for the dog to mature and time daily to train. Realistically, you’re looking at a dog competently and confidently hunting at around 1½ to 2 years old. Before they reach that age, it’s your job as owner, trainer and handler to instill the needed skills — and that takes time.

Not only does a puppy require daily training sessions to teach it what to do, but there are also a litany of pitfalls you must avoid so it doesn’t learn bad habits that are counterproductive to the hunting skills you’re attempting to train into it, which requires diligence on your part — and that of your family. Those bad habits can be learned in the home or by hunting a dog too soon. Prematurely hunting a dog also risks it having a bad experience with an in-field element — cold water, gunfire or crippled birds — that could cause issues for years.

Stewart and Gunzer both agree that a puppy buyer is assuming more risk, especially when it comes to health. “Even with a puppy from a good breeder and with a guarantee, if you go and get the hips checked at 2 years old and they’re no good, by then you and your family are so attached to them that you’re going to keep it and live with it,” said Gunzer.

The year or two a pup spends in a pro’s kennel becoming a started dog reduces the time a buyer would have to deal with any emerging genetic diseases, structural issues or psychological roadblocks. Regardless of age or stage of training, physical and genetic testing of parentage, as well as a health guarantee with clearly defined action by both parties in case of illness or injury, can reduce heartaches and headaches in the event of problems.

Bottom line: If you don’t have 15 minutes twice a week and at least an hour three times a week to train, you might want to skip the puppy phase and go for a started dog. It takes commitment and an appreciation of training to advance a puppy yourself.

The Started Route

A started dog has had some training, but how much is a matter of debate and opinion. Establishing what you want a quasi-trained dog to have learned before taking him home is very important to avoid disputes and unfulfilled expectations. Understand that you will have plenty of training to do, but the foundation for learning and the basics have likely been established in a started dog.

A rough guideline might be: all introductions completed (birds, water and gunfire), basic obedience, force fetch, marking doubles and perhaps beginning handling and pattern drills. Some trainers could consider that a standard started dog while others might consider it an advanced one — again, setting an expectation will give you a baseline from which to subjectively evaluate the dog and asking price. The more advanced the dog is in training, the more you can expect to pay.

Pros: The upside of a started dog compared to a puppy is that you get to see what you’re buying and can assess its abilities, drive, mature physical structure and learned behaviors. “The guarantee that comes with started and finished dogs is that you can get out and work with it and see what you’ve got,” said Gunzer. “It’s nice to figure that out.”

Stewart agrees, and adds that the shortened training curve means you get to hunt sooner. “Not only do you get to see what you’re getting, which cuts out a lot of risk, you get into the field a whole lot faster,” he said. “You can cut a year or more off your time.”

Cons: On the downside, inertia on your part, even in the face of a substantial investment, can turn a potential rock star into a canine version of a Guitar Hero-playing couch potato.

“When I sell a started dog I know a lot of people won’t finish them out, they’ll just start hunting with them right away,” said Stewart.

That temptation to not continue training creates a dog with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. They understand the game, and they understand when and where they can take advantage of you, but they haven’t learned everything they need to, especially during live-action hunting, to maintain the discipline of their limited training.

A popular avenue is to acquire a dog that has washed out of the field-trial circuit. Field-trial dogs have all the skills and instincts required to be great hunting dogs, and their training is usually a much higher level than required by hunters, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to hunt.

“Field trial dogs have good discipline, can mark and handle, but some of those dogs have no hunting skills. You can pay $2,500 and still need to do some training,” said Gunzer. “I’ve had some washouts I’ve sold to hunters, and you have to sell to someone that knows how to train some — like teaching a dog to look up for birds and not out into the field for a white coat.”

Bottom line: If you can afford to spend a little more money, want to hunt with your dog sooner and enjoy training, but don’t want to deal with all the foundation building required with a puppy, a started dog might just be the ticket.

The Finished Product

A finished dog is a trained dog in every regard — they can mark multiple falls, run blinds and deliver to hand, and they are steady and ready to go. All that’s required of you is to set the tone, bond with the dog and develop a working relationship.

Pros: You don’t have to do anything but connect with the dog and maintain his level of work. “Most people that buy our finished dogs are heavy into their career or travel a lot,” said Stewart. “It’s a turnkey investment. Like buying a house, you know exactly what you’re getting.”

Cons: Finished dogs are expensive. After two or three years of feeding, veterinarian care, training (figure an average of $650 per month) and transporting to grounds and areas with birds, you can count on spending $10,000 or more. Additionally, you will be getting an older dog, which means you’ll have fewer years with him.

Bottom line: If you’re too busy to train, but still want a great dog, and you can afford to pay a premium, a finished dog is the only way to go.

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